1998 Version

This is from a web page dated 1998. Not the first of mine to discuss
the subject, but representative of my early ideas.

The Idea of Social Network Optimization

This is a non-technical account of my ideas, but I hope that it can still be quite precise.

Years ago I spent several months in Berkeley, near the UCB campus. I rather expected the old hotel I stayed in, less than a block from the Sather Gate to have a lot of graffiti on the walls of the communal bathrooms — one per floor. But instead the bathroom on my floor had exactly one piece of graffiti, which said “If we had fewer choices we’d be happier”. There is something paradoxical about this, which seems to contradict the more obvious conclusion that we all want to have a choice rather than facing compulsion.

After many years of thinking about this I’ve come to the conclusion that we do want choices, but we also need some kind of help in making good choices. People want a real choice of job, but simply having good choices may not be enough, as the graffiti above suggests — it should be easy to make the right choice.

Let’s start with a couple of simple questions:

  • What would the world be like if it was very easy to find a good job?
  • What would the world be like if it was very easy to find a compatible spouse?

The key word in both of those questions was “find”.  It can be very difficult to find a good job, and it can be very difficult to find a truly compatible spouse or sexual partner.  At least part of the problem in finding a job or a spouse is similar to the problem of finding a book to read, doing research for a term paper, or obtaining a good computer program — these are all problems in information retrieval.

This page is written for people who use a web-browser to look for interesting things on the World Wide Web, and looking for interesting things on the web is a form of information retrieval. Good browsers and good search engines like InfoSeek or HotBot can help make the retrieval of interesting information easy, and I believe they should also help us make good choices in other areas.

Most of the important social relationships in any person’s life come from choices between a few discrete opportunities — here is a short list of some of these relationships, which I collectively describe as a person’s social environment:

  • educational institution — which school or university
  • place of residence — which city, town, or village
  • career — what kind of work do you do
  • place of employment — which employer
  • job — what position do you hold, which tasks are yours
  • co-workers — who do you work with
  • supervisor — who is your immediate boss
  • friends — which of your acquaintances have become close friends
  • mate, spouse, partner — do you have one? who?
  • mentor — which person do you choose to look up to for advice
  • mentee — who looks up to you for advice

I usually refer to this idea of providing some help for social choices as social network optimization, but that last word often causes trouble.

When I use the word optimization in this context people always seem to feel threatened, as if I am advocating that some government agency for ‘Optimization’ should ‘Optimize Society’ according to some criterion of what kind of society is ‘Optimal’, established perhaps by some government ‘Bureau of Optimization’.

I am not advocating anything like that.

What I am advocating is the creation of tools that individual people can chose to use, or not to use, to decide for themselves what may or may not be a better (more-optimal) life, and that they may freely chose to use, or not to use, entirely at their own discretion, to have such a better life.

Very ordinary human problems, such as finding a job, finding a home, finding a mate, and finding friends, all depend upon the ability to make good connections, and thus on ability of the social network to supply useful information about possible connections.

It is possible to use mathematical methods to create tools for social network optimization which can be used by individuals without any knowledge of the underlying mathematics — all the hard mathematics can remain hidden in the software.

Most social problems can be seen as optimization problems which are similar to problems mathematicians and computer scientists know how to solved.

However the most fundamental task in any optimization problem is defining what shall count as optimum — and here the individual user must make these decisions, not the mathematician.

Once that hard part is done, the rest of the problem is a matter of computation, even though the computations might take quite a while.


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